Tuesday, March 13th, 2012...4:44 pm

Liz Fine: Why You Should Care About Moscow’s Jewish Community

Liz Fine (above, at a JDC young leaders training program in Moscow) served as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Moscow from 2010-11. She currently works as JDC’s Director of International Relations and Development in JDC’s Moscow Representative Office.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been living in Moscow – initially as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow, now as a full-time JDC employee – for about 18 months now.

18 months ago, I didn’t know what a hesed is. What a “patronage” worker is. Who is Gretta.

18 months ago, I was a newcomer, a visitor, a stranger, a first-timer.

Today, Moscow is my home, my community, my family.

Today, I visit heseds several times a month. I’ve met more patronage workers than I can name, and Gretta never fails to greet me with a hug and a kiss.

“Liza – are you OK? You look a little tired,” she says. At 70-something, the director of Chesed Chamah has more energy than I had at 18. My Jewish Russian babushka.

Unfortunately, sometimes we take our families for granted. We forget just how special they are.

Sometimes, it takes a group of outsiders to remind us of the miracle that we have in front of us.

Sometimes, it takes a group of visitors to make you stop and think about how our extraordinary our work is.

* * * * *

JDC returned to the Former Soviet Union just over 20 years ago.

The Soviet Union began to fall, and JDC saw a window to re-enter the region. We didn’t know when it would close, so we were going to go in and do what we could for as long as we could. We would reconnect Jews to their Jewish souls.

One thing we thought we knew – we weren’t going to do welfare. We didn’t think there would be a need. It was a socialist country, we knew everyone was “equally poor,” but we thought basic needs were being met.

And then we got here, and we saw.

The queues. The hunger. The loneliness. And we knew we had to do something about it. So, in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America and other partners around the world, we looked for a way to help.

We imported food from Europe, on trucks, on trains, however we could get it in. We tried to distribute it to Jews.

How do you find Jews after 70 years of communism?

Last names, referrals, however we could.

And one day in St. Petersburg we got a call. There was a woman, with a little local Jewish welfare organization. She had a list.

Our hesed system was born.

For more than 20 years, we have worked with local partners to make sure that no elderly Jew is hungry. And that no elderly Jew is alone. We feed stomachs. We feed souls.

Today through our network of 165 local welfare centers in the Former Soviet Union (hesedim), JDC serves more than 160,000 elderly clients in more than 2,500 locations.

In Moscow, in my community, we serve almost 29,000 elderly Jews a year in five hesedim.

But when you visit Moscow, when you visit Chamah or Yad Ezra or Ethel or Nadezdah or Shaare Tzedek, you don’t see numbers.

You see smiles.

You sing Jewish songs.

You dance.

You smell the borscht.

You taste Dima’s markofka (carrot) salad and his gefilite fish

And if you give him a kiss on the cheek, he just might share the secret recipe. (Hint – there’s a brick and a lot of garlic involved.)

You connect.

Because, you see, the clients at Chamah and Ethel and Yad Ezra aren’t that different from our grandparents. So you forget the legacy of 70 years of commumism.

Whereas we can take care of our grandparents, the clients of institutions Chamah and Ethel and Yad Ezra need our help.

You see, the pension provided by the Russian government just isn’t enough. And our clients don’t have savings. So, $300/month in a city that’s more expensive than New York doesn’t go very far. And there may not be children or grandchildren to take care of them.

So they need to make choices.

Does the babushka who painstakingly cuts the leather pendant to give to our American visitors stop and buy diabetes test strips at the pharmacy on the way home? She had a hot meal at Chamah this afternoon, so maybe she can skip dinner?

That’s not acceptable in our community.

Kol Yisrael Averim Ze Le Zeh.

All Israel is responsible for one another.

So, we provide food cards and emergency medications so that she doesn’t have to make that choice.

And if she gets a little bit older, a little bit more frail, we provide her with a patronage, a home care worker. Someone to help her cook, and clean, and shop. She needs a wheelchair, we loan the equipment. Surgery? A grant from our SOS fund.

For years, I read about the work that we do in Moscow, in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Siberia.

But until you meet Ira and Sveta and Anya and Bella and Boris, you cannot feel the depth of the impact.

And then sometimes, when you’ve been here a while, you forget just what our clients face every day.

So each time a new group comes to visit, I look forward to seeing Bella and Chamah and Gretta for the first time through your eyes. Because through your eyes, I’m reminded just how special our work is.

See you soon.

Applications for Inside Jewish Moscow are open through March 18. Email globalservice@jdcny.org for more information.


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